January Spotlight: Sarah Christensen CEO Christensen Consultancy Dubai

1.Tell us about you, your experience and time in the Middle East

I arrived fresh faced and ready for an adventure in the Middle East, 8.5 years ago. I had been working as an Occupational Psychologist in the UK for the past 9 years and was thoroughly fed up of the weather (I did live in Scotland after all!). So, after a chance encounter with someone from Dubai who kept raving about how good it was, I was game to try something new.

I started working as a Regional Talent Manager for HSBC in Dubai. The working styles, experiences, organisational culture and people were all mesmerising. I loved the pace and dynamic flow of people, places and ideas. It was highly stimulating. Through it all, I threw myself in, absorbing and learning at so many different levels.

I left HSBC after 1.5 years and moved to the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. Welcome to phase 2 of my UAE adventure, affectionally known as E11 – Daily Road Trip! In my role as Senior Group Talent Manager, I was responsible for creating and implementing the end-to-end talent management processes. What was great about the role was that there was so much scope for change. As a people person, I got such a buzz from coaching and developing others, particularly women. I worked with some fabulously strong, intelligent, ambitious women. I was inspired by them but also disappointed with some of the challenges they, and even myself, faced in the workplace. It was unnecessary, unfair and downright archaic. I was passionate to do more.

So, after the birth of my son, I re-evaluated my purpose and took the plunge to set up my own business. I was deeply passionate about supporting women in the workplace, particularly working mums. Having had my own ‘interesting’ experiences along the way, I knew there was a better way of doing things and I wanted to be part of that change. This wasn’t about building up the sisterhood, this was about making real change in organisations so that every employee had the right to be heard, respected and valued. Thus, Christensen Consultancy was born.

As a people development consultancy, I believe in performance through inclusion. I work with organisations to harness the potential of every employee. I do this by putting strategies, values and systems into place that will activate and leverage the diverse perspectives of teams and individuals in an inclusive and innovating way. This is because I believe that when people come together and embrace inclusion, they can achieve anything. 

I love what I do. I get up every morning and I’m thankful that I get the opportunity to be part of the change I want to see in the world.

What would be your ideal culture?

My ideal culture is a place where everyone is recognised for what they do and the value they bring to the table. A place where all employees have the opportunity to come together, participate in the discussions, be heard, fully utilised their strengths and create meaningful and impactful change. It may seem idealistic, but I truly believe it is achievable.

The greatest challenge I believe we have in achieving this is, letting go of our old, preconceived notions and ideas about what will work. Our unconscious biases, while they may be an evolutionary mechanism to help protect and keep us safe, hinder our evolution. For many leaders, it means letting go of control, power and ego and for some, that can be challenging.

Instead, it is about moving towards humble leadership; dealing with emotion and engaging people with a sense of meaning and purpose so that they have the freedom to create and innovate without fear of reprisal or repercussion. It involves creating a space where employees can take calculated risks and fail but learn from that failure. Then get up a try again. It’s about building a growth mindset.

How open are the decision makers to this narrative?

I learned early on in my business development that, for many leaders, the concept of Diversity and Inclusion was seen as a fluffy, nice-to-have HR thing that we ‘need’ to do as part of sustainability. Inclusion was about having a women’s group and changing a broom cupboard into a nursing room for breastfeeding mums (yes this is what one company proudly announced they did for D&I!). Many leaders failed to see the significant impact inclusion could have on their business, and more importantly, their bottom line. I quickly learned how to position the narrative so that decision-makers could hear.

As with any change process, the first stage is about education and presenting the business case. ‘How can an inclusive culture make you more money’. There is now a wealth of evidence and examples of this that the business case for D&I is pretty clear. Having a diverse group of people at the table, engaged in solving the most complex of customer needs, is more likely to result in innovations that will positively impact the bottom line.

But it’s more than just having a mix of people at the table. A diverse group alone is not enough for such success. It’s about having a leadership team who are capable of harnessing the potential of employees, to innovate in a way that can ultimately differentiate your business and create sustainable business growth for the longer term. It’s about inclusive leadership. Once decision makers understand the principles of inclusive leadership and how it impacts growth and the bottom line, then change can really begin.

What are the greatest challenges for businesses over the next 5 years?

I believe that speed of change is going to be one of the greatest challenges to businesses over the next 5 years. In order to be sustainable in the future, businesses need to be agile and quickly adapt to whatever new norm comes up. To do this, organisations need to innovate and iterate frequently and quickly.

Creating an inclusive culture, where every employee can participate and has a growth mindset, can positively impact an organisations ability to be agile and stay ahead of the curve. Inclusive leadership gives employees the structures and freedom to innovate to meet the ever-changing needs of the customers. Therefore, inclusion can create sustainable business for the future.

I also believe that there is a growing shift towards the gig economy. This shift towards hiring in specialists and experts in the field on a project-by-project basis can be a game changer for organisations. This flexible approach to talent management can allow organisations access to talent they may not have been able to access before. Such agile project teams allow businesses to affect change much more rapidly than in the past. I believe we will see more organisations moving towards the gig economy in the foreseeable future.

What are the skills and competencies that you would need to train in order to meet these future talent requirements?

To create inclusive leaders, we need individuals who are comfortable with and can create a culture where growth mindset, appetite for risk and openness to experimentation is the norm. This involves building trust so that the team are free to innovate to meet the needs of the business at that time. It means getting rid of the control, power and egos that can exist within the realms of leadership and instead harness inclusive leadership principles to leverage the potential of people. It’s about educating people on how to create learning cultures and agile teams as well as how to utilise design thinking principles to solve complex and wicked problems. It’s also about how to put the structures around how innovation occurs, it can’t just be a free-for-all. These structures and the process through which innovation occurs, needs to be defined to ensure forward movement.

These skills and competencies are very different to those that have previously been ‘taught’ by many management programmes, therefore the individual themselves needs to have a growth mindset that they can learn something new too. My recommendation would also be to embed the evaluation and assessment of growth mindset into any new hiring processes. That way you can ensure you are getting the right people in create sustainability going forward.

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